The early judgment on this year's crop of 3yos is that it's Eskendereya and a bunch of slowpokes. We're not so sure we agree with that. We heard the same thing last year, and then saw Mine That Bird win the Derby in stylish fashion, then Summer Bird turn into a very good 3yo, to say nothing of Quality Road's later development. There are a few horses here that we think can turn out to be nice ones.
What makes it tough to analyze early on whether or not it's a "good crop" of 3yos is a combination of Polytrack and modern training methods. Trainers nowadays take the "more is less" approach with training, which results in most of the horses running in the Derby having run under 7 times. It's tough to evaluate just how good a horse is when his experience is a couple of maiden races and stakes races. In addition, in the words of Bob Baffert, synthetic tracks made ordinary horses look good and good horses look ordinary. Together, both factors have made it tough to evaluate just how good this crop is.
Back to the countdown. Let's take a look at the top 9, starting with three horses that are going to take a lot more action at the windows than they deserve to.
The Wiseguy Division
9. Dublin. This horse has been getting hype and Derby talk since winning the Hopeful last September in Saratoga. Not unimportantly, that was his last victory. Since then, he's had 5 losses and a slew of excuses: bad trip, bad ride, bad luck, blah blah blah. The truth is that he did nothing in the Iroquois last year (on the very track they're running the Derby) and has lost to no-hopers Conveyance and Line of David this year. At 15-1, we'll look elsewhere.
8. Super Saver. Quite well-bred, this horse was all the rage this winter off his big win the Kentucky Cup last November. He's done nothing this year to back it up: he lost the Tampa Bay Derby to horses that returned to get trounced, and had every chance to win the Arkansas Derby and failed. The Pletcher/Calvin Borel combination guarantees he'll be overbet, especially because any plus you get from Borel is negated by this horse's front running style.
7. Ice Box. Everyone on earth thinks there's going to be a pace meltdown in the Derby and many have picked the Florida Derby winner to be the biggest beneficiary. We agree with the first half of that proposition, but are unsold on the second half. Yes, he looked good winning the Florida Derby and could circle the field with a big move on the turn if they run the first 6 furlongs like the Breeders Cup Sprint. It's also probable that they're overhyping this guy off of one race where he beat absolutely nobody (he's the only horse from the Florida Derby in this race) and as others have noted, his GSF from that day should be questioned because every stakes winner ran a new top figure. We love Nick Zito to pieces and won't be at all surprised to see him win, but is he worth a play at 8-1?
Could Win, But We're Against
6. Lookin at Lucky. The most consistent horse in the field, he's only lost twice, once when he had a trip from hell in the Breeders Cup Juvenile, and once when he had a trip from hell in the Santa Anita Derby. He's well-bred, well-connected, and always shows up. So why are we against him? It's not the post position--we think he'll break well, sit in about 10th position and be okay--we simply don't think he's fast enough. His only dirt start (the Rebel) was good not great, and we wonder if that was the best shot that he could fire. We don't see a lot of upside here, and think others offer a better chance to jump up for a big race, especially at better odds.
The Price Plays
5. Mission Impazible. While Super Saver and Discreetly Mine should get cooked by the pace and Devil May Care isn't quite right for this spot, this guy's a closer with nice distance breeding who should be able to work out a good trip. His credentials are almost identical to Ice Box, and he'll be three times the price. We can't see him winning, but we can see him hitting the board.
4. Jackson Bend. Never out of the exacta, this guy romped through the Florida Stallion Series last year, and was turned over to Nick Zito. He's followed that up by beating every horse he's faced except Winslow Homer and Eskendereya, neither of which are in this race. His breeding is fairly obscure (Hear No Evil out of a Tabasco Cat mare), and he lacks the explosiveness that you see in Derby winners. What he does have is the consistency to rate and run well that is seen in a lot of horses that hit the board in the Derby--think Musket Man last year, Bluegrass Cat in '06 and Imperialism in '04.
3. Stately Victor. After Sidney's Candy, here's the second biggest lightning rod horse of the race. Most are going to dismiss his 40-1 upset of the Blue Grass as a Polytrack fluke. We're not so sure (especially at 30-1). Well-bred for the dirt (horse of the decade Ghostzapper by multiple stakes winner Collect the Cash), he shouldn't have an issue getting the distance, should be near the back of the pack and benefit from the anticipated pace meltdown, and may be getting good at the right time, as 3 year olds are wont to do. Yeah, we know that the last three winners of the Blue Grass (Dominican, Monba and General Quarters) did jackshit in the Derby. But in a race lacking a standout, why not consider a horse that won his last race at a big price?
2. American Lion. Why is this guy getting no attention? He was heavily hyped after a good 2yo season, then had a hit-and-miss 3yo season: a loss in the Lewis with a bad trip, a poor showing in the San Felipe, then a win and GSF top in the Illinois Derby. Most are knocking the win as the product of being unchallenged on the lead. Maybe. We're more inclined to see a horse with excellent breeding (especially for the distance), one who doesn't need the lead but won't be a stone closer, and has underrated connections (David Flores is a very solid jockey; Eoin Harty is a trainer just waiting to win a big race). We like that he's shown he can run well on the dirt. Why can't he just be a horse that's improved once he took to the dirt?
1. Awesome Act. In a strange year where the prohibitive favorite was an early scratch and the next two obvious horses have holes we don't like, we're picking a horse that doesn't quite resemble any previous Derby winner. He started off his career sprinting on the grass in Europe, then made the trip to the States for the BC Juvenile Turf, where he ran a fast closing 4th. Perhaps noticing that he's spectacularly bred to route on the dirt, underappreciated trainer Jeremy Noseda shipped him back to New York, where he closed well to win the Gotham. He ran a distant third in the Wood, but watch the replay: Leparoux was fighting him the entire way and the horse had nothing left for the stretch. And he threw a shoe. And he fit the "Eurobounce" to a tee--often horses from Europe will run big first time off the plane then regress in their second start.
We see a horse that has the breeding, connections, style and speed to get it done on Saturday. We like that Leparoux's the jockey; he's young, aggressive, and knows Churchill well enough to know that the horse's big move has to come on the far turn, not before or after. We like that he's training well. And for these reasons, we're picking him to win the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby.
We say this every year, but it's worth repeating: if you're betting $10 or less, just bet your pick to win! Everyone will be at least 3-1 on Saturday, and what's wrong with being right and tripling your money? If you're betting more than that, look at the exactas here--with a lot of horses going to be in the 8-1 to 20-1 range, they're going to offer great value--as well as the Oaks/Derby double (we like Blind Luck and Amen Hallelujah) or the Oaks/Woodford/Derby pick three (we like Blues Street and Battle of Hastings). All of those bets can be done somewhat affordably and give you a good chance at a 3- for 4-figure score.
Good luck everyone and enjoy the races!!